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Mac Planet: The Long Goodbye

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Windows 7 on an iMac.
Windows 7 on an iMac.

You have to feel sorry for our David Shearer. He just quietly, with dignity, stepped down as leader of the Labour Party, giving his successor time to at least try and put things back together. Microsoft's Stephen Ballmer has taken an entirely different path - well, more a railroad than a path. With a wobbling train speeding down it. Towards a collapsed tunnel. With carriages falling off and casualties occurring long before it hits the rubble.

But Ballmer, unlike Shearer, will most likely emerge smiling from his massive, self-directed train wreck with a huge wad of cash - the perfect salve for almost any degree of failure.

Microsoft announced that Steve Ballmer will be retiring within the next 12 months, bringing his 13-year run as CEO of the company to an end.

Microsoft's stock immediately went up eight points!

"There is never a perfect time for this type of transition, but now is the right time," Ballmer said in a Microsoft press release.

Actually I disagree - I reckon 13 years ago was the perfect time. I bet there are many at Microsoft who'd agree.

His farewell memo is online - it's in words, so it's relatively restrained. One can only quail at the thought of a Ballmer video-memo farewell.

Yes, Microsoft is important to Apple, in case you were wondering why I'm discussing it at all. It wasn't that long ago that Microsoft was the unassailable behemoth with Apple the struggling, sidelined, niche market oddity, used by a few educators, designers and weirdos. But Microsoft software (like the components of Office, various networking protocols etcetera) has always been very important to Apple dating way back to the early 1980s. From interchangeable files between Microsoft Office for PC and for Mac to shared networking protocols, there has been much engineering exchange between the two companies to make sure people with Macs can work with those on PC and vice versa. There was even Apple system code sold to Microsoft in the mid 1990s.

Besides, you can even run Windows on your Mac, if you really want to. The capability is built into every Intel Mac.

In pure systems-installed terms, Microsoft is still well ahead of Apple, but my goodness how the world's changed. Microsoft finally reacted seriously to all this change recently when Ballmer refocused Microsoft to drag the PC stalwart into the faster-moving mobile age. He initiated the device-spanning Windows 8 operating system, a push towards rapid-fire releases rather than three-year development cycles, an increased focus on services and the cloud (areas Apple and Google have been notably successful in) and the launch of the Surface brand, which was Microsoft's first foray into actively competing with its own manufacturing partners. I bet that went down well, too.

And it's not all doom and gloom - Xbox is a shining example of doing things (mostly) right. It's popular, it's a stable-ish platform and, most importantly, has great games. Gaming on an iPad doesn't come close for richness and complexity, and Macs run a tiny proportion of the games available across most other platforms.

But the latest Microsoft moves have been controversial; indeed, many have verged on abject failure. For example, principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, Patrick Moorhead, finds the 12 month search for a successor suspicious.

"Somebody pissed somebody off. Potentially it was this [US]$900 million write down [for Surface RT tablets]. If I had to bet money, I'd say that that was the straw that broke the camel's back."

That camel's had an unbelievably tolerant and strong back so far though - Zune, Windows phone, Surface - not to mention all those bizarre media appearances starting with Ballmer laughing off the importance of the iPhone. Perhaps Ballmer's true metier should have been as Bill Gate's court jester.

PCWorld even ran a story called "Steve Ballmer's wackiest, craziest, downright funniest moments at Microsoft." Now there's an industry accolade for you. I can hardly wait for the film of his leaving event. I picture tears, bad dancing to awful '80s music and lots of whooping, sweating and chest thumping.

Unfortunately, there's no obvious successor for Ballmer, even though twelve months is a long time over which to evaluate things. And/or claw your way to the top. Fortunately, there are some interesting candidates, although no one really high up the ladder, as PCWorld (again) points out, thanks to a flat management structure.

Long-time Apple commentator Jim Dalrymple reckons Microsoft will (or should) be trying to get someone from Apple - now there's a thought. It's a short post but the comments are entertaining.

I would wish former Apple execs Scully or Jean-Louis Gassée on the Seattle giant - but compared to Ballmer, they'd probably be constructive.

Possibly a much more scary thought is: imagine if Ballmer ran Apple! Ben Thomson at stratechery went where many would not/could not bring themselves to go, and intriguingly reckons Apple would make more money under Ballmer than Cook.

But he qualifies this with "And yet, under Ballmer, everyone at Apple would be working so hard, and be making so much money, both for themselves and for Apple's shareholders, that they would ensure that Apple never again reinvents consumer computing." It is interesting reading.

Perhaps the real tipping point, technologically, for Microsoft under Ballmer was the Surface RT - that's not my thought, but Jon Honeyball's on PC Pro.

He writes that the Surface RT and the whole ARM adventure "took away resources from the Intel-focussed Windows core engineering teams, and undoubtedly resulted in additional delay, which resulted in a scaling back of the deliverables for Windows 8. Spend five minutes with 8.1, and you'll see feature after feature properly implemented which hadn't been tackled in Windows 8."

All along, I've thought the RT was a bizarre response to tablets. It's a combination of a tablet and a PC. It's as if, soon after the car was invented, one of the manufacturers put a Shetland Pony alongside the engine for 'the best of both worlds'. It demonstrates a lack of faith in the future - and isn't that what technology companies need more than anything else?

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